Moorish Valencia

It’s past midnight, and I’m in a street surrounded by a group of people chatting and laughing as the sharp smell of gunpowder from crackling fireworks wafts over us in the thick night air. A colourfully dressed woman with dark brown eyes is wandering in and out of the crowd holding a plate of delicious nut-based sweetmeats, which she offers around.

‘I made them,’ she says proudly.

All at once, the hubbub of guttural voices dies down as the sound of a beating drum reverberates from the pavement opposite.


And a man nearby starts playing a high-pitched reed instrument, like a snake-charmer, with slow, whining notes. After a few moments, a woman at his side begins to sing. But this is no sweet melody; it sounds more like a chant or a cry, her voice rising and falling in strange, swooping intervals, almost like a muezzin’s call to prayer. When she finishes, everyone cheers and claps, the drum beats again, and the crowd moves on down the street for more music and sweetmeats.

Though the music, food and atmosphere might make me feel as though I’ve been transported to North Africa for a street festival, I am actually in Valencia, on Spain’s eastern coast, a city that has been my home for the past ten years. The sweetmeats – indistinguishable from halva – are known as turrón, and I’m witnessing a Nit d’Albaes – a common local fiesta where satirical songs are sung late into the night – but with an obvious Moorish flavour to them.

Valencia is not the first place you tend to think of when ‘Moorish Spain’ is mentioned. Andalusia, to the south, has that honour, with its magnificent Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Great Mosque at Cordoba, and other picturesque sites. But historically, Valencia is as ‘Moorish’ as any of these: it was ruled by Muslims for over 500 years, until 1238; while the very last Moors in Spain – the Moriscos – were concentrated in the Valencia region when the order to expel all 300,000 of them to North Africa came in 1609. Under the Arabs, Valencia was at the centre of what was known as sharq al-andalus – the eastern region of Al-Andalus, while the city itself was known as hadiqat al-andalus – the garden of Moorish Spain, for its wonderful climate and extremely fertile soil.

Despite this heritage, however, you won’t find many mosques or ancient palaces to visit. Yet although ‘Moorish Valencia’ may be a less obvious tourist destination than its Andalusian counterpart, it is no less rewarding for it.

Today the city is the third largest in Spain, a bustling Mediterranean sea port which recently hosted the America’s Cup and has staged two Formula One Grands Prix. From being an oft-overlooked corner of the country, it has arrived as a tourist destination in the past few years with the opening of the spectacularly modern City of Arts and Sciences – a space age architectural delight comprising an opera house, museums, an aquarium and more – designed by local boy Santiago Calatrava. Valencians now have reason to be proud of their home town. But you won’t find many of them talking about their city’s Moorish past. Or at least not yet.

Part of the problem is that much of what is actually Moorish in Valencia doesn’t appear to be so at first sight. All you have to do, however, is scratch away at the surface.

Andalusia may have much to offer, but it doesn’t have a great cuisine – and I don’t care what Andalusians say. Valencia, on the other hand, is a culinary nerve centre, home, no less, to Spain’s national dish – paella. And the reason why you can eat so well here? It’s because of that ‘garden’ the Moors were so proud of – a vast market gardening area circling the city on three sides like a crescent moon. The Romans may have founded the city and grown the first crops, but it took Moorish agricultural know-how to turn the Huerta, as Valencians call it, into the richly fertile cornucopia that it still is today. Foods that were practically unknown in Spain – and the rest of Europe – until the Middle Ages, were first grown here, everything from rice, to artichokes, spinach, saffron, water melons, tiger nuts and mulberry trees – vital for the silk industry which made Valencia hugely rich in the 15th century.

On thing in particular made the Huerta so successful: originating from drier lands, the Moors knew how to make the most of the water supplies available. And they did so by building a vast network of water channels, still known in Spanish as acéquias, from the Arabic al-saqiya.

The Plaza de la Virgen is the centre of the old city, flanked on one side by the Gothic facade of the Generalitat – the seat of Valencian local government – and on the other the Cathedral, once the site of the former mosque. This very Christian and ‘Western’ setting, however, is the site where an ancient ritual dating back to Moorish times is still held every Thursday at midday. As the bell strikes twelve, eight men dressed in black take their seats in the open air at the entrance to the Cathedral to deliberate on any disputes that have arisen in the past week over water rights. This is the Tribunal de las Aguas, the oldest surviving legal body in Europe, originally set up by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in 960 to oversee the running of the acéquias – the life blood of the Huerta, and of the city itself. Although today discussions take place in the local language – Valencian – its Moorish roots are plain to see: the eight men are accompanied by a bailiff, known as an alguacil, from the Arabic al-wazir. Meanwhile, no notes are taken, and the president of the assembly indicates who is to speak by pointing to him with his foot – a custom that can still be found in certain Moroccan tribal meetings. Also, the day – Thursday – is significant, this being the last day of the Islamic working week before the day of rest.

There may be signs that Valencians themselves are beginning to become more aware of their Arab past, however. Last autumn was the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moriscos – an event commemorated by exhibitions and talks, while a local TV documentary team found descendants of the Moriscos in Tunisia, using the same agricultural techniques that farmers still use today in the Huerta, and even now describing themselves as being originally from Valencia – or Balansiya.

I had a chance to see this growing awareness recently when I met Luis Bellvís and Santiago Máñez, owners of the Hotel Palacio Marqués de Caro, in the heart of the old city. Luis is a descendant of the last Moorish king of Valencia – Abu Zayd – who took the name Bellvís when his city was conquered by the Christian King Jaime I. Luis only found out recently, though, that he was also the owner of a large section of the old Moorish city walls. The front of the hotel looks like a fairly typical 19th century town house, or palacio. But inside, once Luis and Santiago started renovating, they discovered thick walls dating back to the 12th century Almohad period, complete with a watch tower. With help from UNESCO architect Francisco Jurado and award-winning interior designer Francesc Rifé, they transformed the precious archeological site into a Michelin-starred restaurant, Arrop. The name means ‘syrup’ in Valencian, and comes from the Arabic word sharab.

‘We were amazed when we found all this,’ Santiago, a trained archeologist said. ‘People thought the Arab city walls were a couple of streets further south. But I found a seventeenth-century manuscript that placed them right here in this street. Also, you can tell they’re Moorish from the building style, and the brick arches at the top of the watch tower.’

All these original features have now been incorporated into their five-star luxury hotel.

‘No one really talks about the Moorish heritage in Valencia,’ Luis says. ‘But it was here, all the time, right underneath our feet.’

Others in the tourism industry who are drawing on the Arabic past for inspiration include the owners of the Balansiya Restaurant, near the university. As the name suggests, their inspiration comes from the Moorish city that once stood here, and while happy to fill customers in on the history, they also feed them dishes from that time. Many wouldn’t be out of place in a Moroccan restaurant, but the recipes come from Medieval Moorish sources, including a couscous from the 13th century, with ox meat and coriander, and ‘Tagra’, made with fresh fish, saffron and raisins.

All of which takes us back to the Huerta – the single most important aspect of the Moorish legacy in Valencia. On a sunny day, a cycle ride is perhaps the best way to see it for those with strong legs. To the south lies the large sweet-water lagoon just inland from the coast known as La Albufera (from the Arabic al-buhayra, ‘the little sea’). This is the main rice growing area, and a great place to eat paella, particularly in the village of El Palmar. Only remember to show up at lunchtime – Valencians rarely eat paella in the evening.

The Moorish origins of this most Valencian of dishes are unclear. Rice was an Arabic import, and the similarity with other ‘stuffed rice’ dishes in the Middle East are obvious. Some will tell you the word itself comes from the Arabic baqiya, meaning leftovers, but the official explanation is that it comes from the Latin patella, referring to the characteristic flat pan in which it is made.

Meanwhile, to the north of the city, tiger nuts for making horchata – a sweet milky drink – and oranges are grown in vast quantities. Simply drive or cycle through in late March, and the scent of orange blossom (azahar, from the Arabic al-azhar, ‘flowers’) will be almost overpowering, while the trickle of water in the acéquias for irrigating the land is as relaxing as any fountain in the Alhambra.

The names of the villages that dot this market gardening area also bear the stamp of what was once home to Arabic-speaking farmers: Alginet, Aldaia, Alfafar, Benifaió, Albalat and Alcudia are just some of the towns that surround Valencia. Here the common local expression of surprise, ché, comes from the Arabic ya, while women asking their thirsty children if they want some water will use the Arabic word ma instead of the more normal agua.

Only two mosques survive from the time of the Moors in the Valencia area: one in the village of Simat, to the south, but the better of the two is in Chelva, a forty minute drive to the east. Today it is known as the ‘Ermita de la Santa Cruz’ after it was turned into a hermitage in the 16th century, but it was originally the Mosque of Benaeça. Built in 1370 for the Moors who had remained after the Christian conquest, it retains its original form, with qibla wall and washing area for ritual ablutions. It has now been turned into the village museum, focussing on the Moorish past.

For me, personally, however, the most important local legacy of the Islamic past lies not in Valencia, nor in the lush countryside around the city. Instead it comes from the town of Xátiva, about 60 kms to the south. Sitting at the top of a long green valley, it is overlooked by a magnificent castle, Moorish in origin, but which has been added to many times over the centuries. The views from up here are spectacular on a clear day, reaching as far as the Mediterranean.

But what fascinates me most about Xátiva is not the castle, nor the fact that it was the site of the first paper mill in Europe – again, another very important Moorish legacy. It comes, instead from it being the town in which the greatest work of literature in Moorish Spain was written: Ibn Hazm’s Tawq al-Hamama, ‘The Ring of the Dove’. Philosopher, physician and faqih, Ibn Hazm was living in exile here from his native Cordoba when he sat down in 1022 to compose his famous treatise on the art of love, with thirty chapters detailing every aspect of a lover’s existence, from love at first sight, to separation and even death.

The influence the book had was enormous, not only in the Muslim world, but particularly in Christian Europe. Until that point, ‘romantic’ love had barely existed north of the Pyrenees, yet within a century of Ibn Hazm’s work the Troubadour movement was taking off in the ‘love courts’ of southern France, with their subtler understanding of human passion. It is impossible to imagine Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and almost the entire canon of Western literature without the ‘invention’ of romantic love. And without Ibn Hazm, romantic love might never have reached Europe.

Few Valencians know this when I mention it to them, or even that much of the food they eat, the music they play and sing, and many of the words they use are actually Arabic in origin. All this is what might be described as the ‘invisible’ legacy of the Moors. Things are changing, however, and soon, I am sure, they will be as proud of the Arabic side of their culture as they are of all the rest.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper.

Background image "Orange Mood" by Pensiero on Flickr ¦ Radfoot